The Yomiuri Giants are set up to have a lot of star power in their 2019 lineup.
Yoshihiro Maru is the two-time reigning Central League MVP, Hayato Sakamoto has been on four Best Nine teams, including last season, and Kazuma Okamoto was an All-Star last year who played for Samurai Japan against the MLB All-Stars in November.
That’s not even all, as the Kyojin have other players with plenty of accomplishments on their roster. Naoki Yoshikawa, though, doesn’t have as many of those type of things on his resume.
Not yet at least.
Even with all of Yomiuri’s star power, Yoshikawa could end up being one of the club’s key men in 2019.
“I think having him as the first batter is going to be a great advantage for us,” said Giants manager Tatsunori Hara. “He is going to be the leadoff batter and play second base throughout this season. That’s my hope.”
Batting in front of Maru and Sakamoto, who will, in some order, hit second and third in the lineup, will allow Yoshikawa to put pressure on opposing pitchers and give the batters behind him, notably cleanup man Okamoto, the chance to drive in runs.
“Of course he’s got good speed, so he has the ability to turn a hit into a double or a triple,” said Takehiro Suzuki, Yomiuri’s base running coach. “He’s got the potential to be a very exciting player.”
Yoshikawa had a nice spring for the Giants, hitting .302 and scoring seven runs in 13 games. The team is putting a lot of faith in him as the leadoff man, as opposed to putting Sakamoto in the No. 1 spot.
The way the Giants will be constructed, with either Maru or Sakamoto batting second, Hara may not utilize the sacrifice bunt, Japanese baseball’s tried and true tool, quite as much. So Yoshikawa might not only be expected to hit, but also put himself in scoring position either by taking an extra base or by stealing bases.
“It’s really important to be able to use all your strength and get up to speed in a short amount of time,” Suzuki said of the key to effective base running. “It’s also very important to use good judgement when the ball is hit. So you have to be quick and also have good techniques, including your stamina and movement. You have to be really precise.”
Suzuki, who played for the Giants from 1997-2016, ended his career with 228 stolen bases and was a valuable pinch runner during the latter stages of his career. Suzuki thinks Yoshikawa can be effective in his spot in the order.
“One of his strongest points is his speed,” Suzuki said. “He also really takes off well and has good movement when he steals bases.”
A lot of players have manned second base for Hara, so Yoshikawa will have to produce to keep the job. He only hit .253 last season, finishing the year with a .303 on-base percentage and 11 stolen bases.
“I’ve been paying attention to my hitting,” Yoshikawa said during an interview with video streaming service DAZN Japan, which will air some Giants games this season. “I still have a little way to go to raise my level. But I’m aware of my hitting because if don’t hit, I won’t be used in games.”
While Yoshikawa had a decent spring, all the numbers get reset to zero when Yomiuri opens the season in Hiroshima against the three-time defending league champion Carp on Friday. The Giants may have a lot of stars, but they’ll also put a lot of responsibility on their comparatively unheralded leadoff batter.
“I think he’s doing well right now,” Hara said. “Of course he has room to grow, but I expect him to perform well from the start.”